MAYDA….just one letter short of an S.O.S.
LONDON – On August 19 1845 the Morning Post reported that the convict transport Mayda was lying at Woolwich, with 197 prisoners on board. They had been brought down the Thames from the Millbank Penitentiary and were to be taken to Norfolk Island, the harshest penal colony of all. Most of the men were under long sentences, with little prospect of ever returning home. Four of the latter were my Shadbolt ancestors from Hertfordshire;, a father, son and two nephews.
After some weeks at sea, convicts and crew began to fall seriously ill with fever and there were several deaths. Initially, Surgeon Alexander Kilroy was at a loss to understand the cause. The Mayda was a new, roomy ship. Life on-board was well-ordered, and cleanliness was a high priority.
Thankfully, when fresh supplies were taken on at the Cape of Good Hope the sickness disappeared. Kilroy later attributed the cause to drinking water stored in oak water barrels, which had been filled from the Thames. At that time the river was highly polluted. It was sheer luck that the death count was not much higher.
A few days out from Norfolk another disaster was narrowly averted. The ship almost came to grief when she lost her top masts and foremast head.
After arriving on January 8 the weary convicts from the Mayda were taken down to the seashore to bathe. They removed their clothes and were allowing the salt water to wash over them when they were suddenly set upon. A gang of hardened prisoners known as ‘The Ring’, had broken out of their cells with the express purpose of molesting the vulnerable newcomers. Despite the presence of constables, the Mayda convicts were beaten, and robbed of what little they possessed. It was a horrifying insight into what life on Norfolk Island would hold for them during the final months of Joseph Childs’ failed administration and the even harsher regime of his successor, John Price.
From Norfolk Island the Mayda made her way to Hobart, arriving on January 29. Repairs were carried out, and a new mast fitted. The ship was cleaned and its convict fittings were removed and sold off, making way for cargo (mainly wheat and wool) before sailing north to Launceston, and thence to London.
Among just eight passengers was George Holcombe, who had been manager of the Bank of Australia in Hobart. He was accompanied by his wife Georgina and their four young children – Georgina, 6; Frederica, 4; Annabella, 3; and baby George, 1. They were accompanied by the children’s nurse.
Alexander Kilroy, the Mayda’s humane, caring surgeon, decided to leave the ship in Hobart. It proved to be a wise decision, and he went on to serve aboard other convict transports.
On April 1 1847 the following piece was published in The Tasmanian Post;
THE MAYDA – We mentioned in our last that no tidings had been received of the Mayda. She was a barque of 583 tons, commanded by Captain May, and was considered the finest of the ships that left last season. She cleared at the Customs here [Launceston] for London on the 23rd April, and had not arrived home on the 28th November, a period of seven months. She was said to have been in good trim, but there is too much reason to apprehend that some fatal catastrophe has occurred.
In the days before the distress signals of S.O.S and MAYDAY were introduced a stricken ship was completely alone, without the slightest hope of assistance.
The Mayda was marked by Lloyds as lost in May 1847. It’s interesting to note that in the same year, many of the convicts she had taken to Norfolk Island were transferred to the Cascades Probation Station on Tasman Peninsular. It was an outpost of the infamous Port Arthur penitentiary.
Eventually, many of the men were granted their ‘ticket of leave’, and able to carve out new lives.
NOTE – The Shadbolt family were transported to Norfolk Island on the Mayda after robbing a drapery shop. They were my paternal ancestors, who were a bit like characters from the novel Lorna Doone! My three times G-grandfather Solomon died at Cascades, but his son and nephews survived. Here is their story.